In many strange ways, the raunchy comedy Fist Fight has a few important messages buried in its brutality, most of which have to do with the decline of the public school system, a phenomenon that couldn’t be more timely as things will presumably get so much worse in the coming months and years under our current Education Secretary. There are themes of taking responsibility for the consequences of one’s actions, the difficulty of teaching students who are constantly distracted by handheld technology, and the frustration of trying to do your job while a school administration is cutting funding and jobs at every turn. Believe it or not, all of that is in Fist Fight in varying doses, but it’s most just cursing and punching and dangerous pranks.
I’ll confess, I like the film’s premise. In an effort to save his own job, good-guy teacher Andy Campbell (Charlie Day) inadvertently gets disciplinarian Ron Strickland (Ice Cube) fired on the last day of school. Since he literally has nothing to lose, Strickland doesn’t so much challenge Campbell to a fight as he does just promise him a beating is coming after school, and he wants the entire school population to lay witness to the pummeling. Everything else in Fist Fight is window dressing. The cast is made up of an interesting mix of known funny supporting players (Tracy Morgan and Jillian Bell play fellow teachers; Kumail Nanjiani plays a useless security guard) as well as other actors (Dean Norris, Christina Hendricks) working outside their more dramatic comfort zone, but still pulling in a few laughs along the way. The leads play off each other nicely. Even visually, seeing the wee Day standing nose to nose with the enormous tank of man that is Ice Cube can be amusing. Day incorporates his familiar, stammering, overly excited persona, which runs counter to Cube’s drill sergeant delivery, and even when they try to get along, Cube’s personality dominance is clear.
The film has a pointless subplot concerning Campbell and his family, particularly his daughter, who goes to another school and is being bullied (add that the list of the movie’s messages). The father-daughter combo are working on a piece for her school’s talent show that runs the risk of not happening because he might be caught up in this fight and the school administration is holding meetings with all faculty members to let them know if they’ll still have jobs the following year. It all felt overly complicated, and it is, especially since the dilemma with the family seems secondary compared to the ass-whooping Andy is about to receive.
Let you think director Richie Keen (a veteran of such television series as “Maron,” “The Comedians,” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”) is going to wuss out and have his leads make peace before their big fight, think again. Their battle royale is epic and reminded me a great deal of the massive brawl featured in John Carpenter’s They Live (if you’ve see it, you know it; it you haven’t, shame on you). It’s no accident that Keen makes the high school the film is set in look more like a prison than a house of education, complete with a foreboding courtyard where the final rumble goes down. The filmmaker is from Chicago’s northern suburbs—John Hughes country—so it comes as no surprise that his first feature is set in a high school with a smattering of wise-ass students mixed in with the handful of teachers we meet. Fist Fight has a lot more four-letter words than your typical Hughes film, but the vibe is similar.
Fist Fight is no great movie, but I’m guessing if you’re even considering going to see it, you know that already. What it does have are two solid leads, doing what they do best, leading up to a seriously nasty punch-fest that should make any audience collectively cringe as the pain works its way into your body. A more polished film would have found a more direct means to incorporate the more serious message, but the filmmakers aren’t interested in polished; this movie is meant to be rough around the edges and a little scrappy. If you want to see a film about getting the stuffing knocked out of you, you’ve come to the right place. If you’re looking for Oscar nominees, look away.